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Binding our nation’s wounds on Thanksgiving

November 18, 2018

Thanksgiving.

It’s a quintessential American holiday that harkens back to our earliest days and reflects our national aspirations. On Thursday, as we give thanks, let’s be mindful of this day’s uniquely American character and history. Such mindfulness is important in these challenging times that call upon us to fend off an escalating assault upon our constitutional republic and our democratic values.

Our Thanksgiving prototype is the pilgrim festival during which 53 Mayflower survivors — those pilgrims who had not succumbed to disease and starvation — joined with members of the Wampanoag tribe in autumn 1621 to give thanks for a successful first harvest after much hardship.

Observance of a day for thanksgiving is embedded in our nationhood. In 1777, shortly after our nation’s birth, the Continental Congress declared the first national Thanksgiving.

In 1789, George Washington issued a Thanksgiving proclamation which included gratitude for “the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have ... enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed ...”

Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation also included a plea “to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations ... and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord.”

Washington asked the “People of the United States” to observe this day of “public thanksgiving and prayer ... by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

In reading Washington’s proclamation, one is struck by the many expressions of gratitude for our constitution, our government, our laws, and the civil and religious liberties they afford us.

Despite these early proclamations, an official annual national day of Thanksgiving was not instituted until 1863. At the urging of Sarah Josepha Hale, who since 1846 had been lobbying successive presidents to make Thanksgiving an official national holiday, President Abraham Lincoln finally established this national observance. At the time, our nation was engaged in Civil War. Not surprisingly, Lincoln’s proclamation reflects hope for healing and unity.

Inviting “the whole American People” to observe “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise,” he asked that they commend to God’s “tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged ...” and that they “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity (sic) and Union.”

Until recently, I was insufficiently mindful of how Thanksgiving is inextricably intertwined with who we are as a nation. I didn’t fully realize how this entails thankfulness for the governing institutions our founders have bequeathed us.

Until Donald J. Trump became president, we didn’t grasp how perilous it is to take this cherished legacy for granted. We didn’t truly appreciate what it means to live in a democratic nation of laws, with an independent judiciary, a separation of powers, and congressional checks on the presidency, or to enjoy freedom of religion and speech, a free press, and the right to peaceful assembly to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Of more than 5000 documented Trump lies — the number continually growing — the biggest may have been on Nov. 9, 2016, in his first speech after narrowly winning the electoral college vote.

“Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division; have to get together.”

Since uttering those words, modeled on Lincoln’s call “to bind up the nation’s wounds” as the Civil War drew to an end, Trump has intentionally promoted division and hatred. He continually undermines our institutions. His propensity for autocratic rule and admiration of Vladimir Putin should frighten us.

As we give thanks for our country’s greatness this Thanksgiving, may we be mindful of our ongoing obligation to protect this most precious heritage.

Alma Rutgers served in Greenwich town government for 25 years. Her blog is at blog.ctnews.com/rutgers/

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